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Impetigo: Diagnosis and Treatment
HOLLY HARTMAN-ADAMS, MD; CHRISTINE BANVARD, MD; and GREGORY JUCKETT, MD, MPH
West Virginia University Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, Morgantown, West Virginia

Impetigo is the most common bacterial skin infection in children two to five years of age. There are two principal
types: nonbullous (70% of cases) and bullous (30% of cases). Nonbullous impetigo, or impetigo contagiosa, is caused
by Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes, and is characterized by honey-colored crusts on the face and
extremities. Impetigo primarily affects the skin or secondarily infects insect bites, eczema, or herpetic lesions. Bullous impetigo, which is caused exclusively by S. aureus, results in large, flaccid bullae and is more likely to affect
intertriginous areas. Both types usually resolve within two to three weeks without scarring, and complications are
rare, with the most serious being poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis. Treatment includes topical antibiotics such
as mupirocin, retapamulin, and fusidic acid. Oral antibiotic therapy can be used for impetigo with large bullae or
when topical therapy is impractical. Amoxicillin/clavulanate, dicloxacillin, cephalexin, clindamycin, doxycycline,
minocycline, trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, and macrolides are options, but penicillin is not. Natural therapies
such as tea tree oil; olive, garlic, and coconut oils; and Manuka honey have been anecdotally successful, but lack sufficient evidence to recommend or dismiss them as treatment options. Treatments under development include minocycline foam and Ozenoxacin, a topical quinolone. Topical disinfectants are inferior to antibiotics and should not be
used. Empiric treatment considerations have changed with the increasing prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, with methicillin-resistant S. aureus, macrolide-resistant streptococcus, and mupirocin-resistant streptococcus
all documented. Fusidic acid, mupirocin, and retapamulin cover methicillin-susceptible S. aureus and streptococcal
infections. Clindamycin proves helpful in suspected methicillin-resistant S. aureus infections. Trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole covers methicillin-resistant S. aureus infection, but is inadequate for streptococcal infection. (Am Fam
Physician. 2014;90(4):229-235. Copyright © 2014 American Academy of Family Physicians.)
CME This clinical content
conforms to AAFP criteria
for continuing medical
education (CME). See
CME Quiz Questions on
page 226.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.


Patient information:
A handout on this topic,
written by the authors of
this article, is available
at http://www.aafp.org/
afp/2014/0815/p229-s1.
html.

I

mpetigo is a common bacterial skin
infection caused by Staphylococcus
aureus, group A beta-hemolytic Streptococcus pyogenes, a combination of the
two, or less commonly, anaerobic bacteria.1,2
In the United States, more than 11 million
skin and soft tissue infections are caused
by S. aureus annually.3 Impetigo is the most
common skin infection in children two
to five years of age, but persons of any age
can be affected.4 One-third of skin and soft
tissue infections in returning travelers are
attributable to impetigo, usually secondary
to infected mosquito bites.5
Many bacteria inhabit healthy skin; some
types, such as S. pyogenes and S. aureus,
intermittently colonize the nasal, axillary,
pharyngeal, or perineal areas.2,6 These bacteria can lead to infection of susceptible skin.6
Other factors that predispose to impetigo
are skin trauma; hot, humid climates; poor
hygiene; day care settings; crowding; malnutrition; and diabetes mellitus or other
medical comorbidities.2,6 Autoinoculation
via fingers, towels, or clothing often leads

to the formation of satellite lesions in adjacent areas.6 The highly contagious nature of
impetigo also allows spread from patients to
close contacts. Although impetigo is considered a self-limited infection, antibiotic
treatment is often initiated for a quicker cure
and to prevent the spread to others.2 This
can help decrease the number of school and
work days lost.6 Hygienic practices such as
cleaning minor injuries with soap and water,
handwashing, regular bathing, and avoiding
contact with infected children can help prevent infection.7
Clinical Presentation
There are two presentations of impetigo:
nonbullous (also known as impetigo contagiosa) and bullous.
NONBULLOUS

Nonbullous impetigo is the most common
presentation, comprising 70% of cases. Nonbullous impetigo can be further classified
as primary or the more prevalent secondary (common) form.4,8 Primary impetigo is

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Impetigo

The rights holder did not grant the American Academy of Family Physicians the
right to sublicense this material to a third
party. For the missing item, see the original print version of this publication.

Figure 1. Honey-colored crust of nonbullous
impetigo.
Copyright © Logical Images, Inc.

The rights holder did not grant the American Academy of Family Physicians the
right to sublicense this material to a third
party. For the missing item, see the original print version of this publication.

a direct bacterial invasion of intact healthy
skin.4,8 Secondary (common) impetigo is a
bacterial infection of disrupted skin caused
by trauma, eczema, insect bites, scabies, or
herpetic outbreaks and other diseases.6 Diabetes or other underlying systemic conditions also increase susceptibility.6 Impetigo
starts as maculopapular lesions that transition into thin-walled vesicles that rapidly
rupture, leaving superficial, sometimes pruritic or painful erosions covered by the classic
honey-colored crusts4,8 (Figure 1). The course
of infection can last two to three weeks if
untreated.8 Once the crust dries, the remaining area heals without scarring. The exposed
skin of the face (e.g., nares, perioral region)
and the extremities are the most commonly
affected sites.1 Regional lymphadenitis may
occur, but systemic symptoms are unlikely.1,8
Nonbullous impetigo is usually caused by S.
aureus, but S. pyogenes can also be involved,
especially in warmer, more humid climates.
BULLOUS

Figure 2. Flaccid bullae that ooze yellow fluid
in a patient with impetigo.
Reprinted with permission from Cole C, Gazewood J.
Diagnosis and treatment of impetigo. Am Fam Physician.
2007;75(6):862.

The rights holder did not grant the American Academy of Family
Physicians the right to sublicense this material to a third party.
For the missing item, see the original print version of this publication.

Figure 3. Brown crust appearing after bullae rupture in a patient with
impetigo.
Copyright © Logical Images, Inc.

230  American Family Physician

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Bullous impetigo is caused only by S.
aureus 1,4,9 and is characterized by large, fragile, flaccid bullae that can rupture and ooze
yellow fluid (Figure 24). It usually resolves
within two to three weeks without scarring.8
The pathognomonic collarette of scales on its
periphery develops after the bullae rupture,
leaving a thin, brown crust on the remaining erosions1 (Figure 3). These larger bullae
form because of exfoliative toxins produced
by S. aureus strains that cause loss of cell
adhesion in the superficial epidermis.9 Bullous impetigo is typically found on the trunk,
axilla, and extremities, and in intertriginous
(diaper) areas.2 It is the most common cause
of ulcerative rash on the buttocks of infants.1
Systemic symptoms are uncommon but can
include fever, diarrhea, and weakness.4
Diagnosis
The diagnosis of nonbullous and bullous
impetigo is nearly always clinical. Differential diagnosis includes many other blistering
and rash disorders (Table 1).1,4,10 Skin swabs
cannot differentiate between bacterial infection and colonization.11 In patients in whom
first-line therapy fails, culture of the pus or
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Impetigo

bullous fluid, not the intact skin, may be
helpful for pathogen identification and antimicrobial susceptibilities.12 Although serologic testing for streptococcal antibodies is
helpful in the diagnosis of acute poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis, it does not aid in
the diagnosis of impetigo.13
Complications
Impetigo is usually a self-limited condition,
and although rare, complications can occur.
These include cellulitis (nonbullous form),
septicemia, osteomyelitis, septic arthritis,
lymphangitis, lymphadenitis, guttate psoriasis, staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome,
and acute poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis, with poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis being the most serious.14 The number
of possible causes, incidence, and clinical
severity of acute poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis have decreased, because the
causative organism of impetigo has shifted
from S. pyogenes to S. aureus.13 Most cases of
poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis in the
United States are associated with pharyngitis.
The strains of S. pyogenes implicated in impetigo are thought to have minimal nephritogenic potential.13 There are no data to indicate
that antibiotic treatment of impetigo has any
effect on preventing the development of acute
poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis, which
can occur in up to 5% of patients with nonbullous impetigo.1,11,15,16 Rheumatic fever does
not appear to be a complication of impetigo.16
Treatment
Treatment options for impetigo include topical antibiotics, systemic antibiotics, and topical disinfectants.8 Quality evidence-based
research for the most effective treatment of
impetigo is lacking.11 In 2012, an updated
Cochrane review on impetigo interventions
evaluated 68 randomized controlled trials,
including 26 on oral treatments and 24 on
topical treatments. There was no clear evidence as to which intervention is most effective.8 Topical antibiotics are more effective
than placebo and preferable to oral antibiotics for limited impetigo.8,11 Systemic antibiotics are often reserved for more generalized
or severe infections in which topical therapy
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is not practical. Clinicians sometimes may
choose both topical and systemic therapy.8
The ideal treatment should be effective, be
inexpensive, have limited adverse effects, and
should not promote bacterial resistance.2,4,8
TOPICAL ANTIBIOTICS

Topical antibiotics (Table 2 6,8,11,14,17-19) have
the advantage of being applied only where
needed, minimizing antibiotic resistance
and avoiding gastrointestinal and other systemic adverse effects.4,8 The length of time of
topical treatment varies based on product,
but in clinical trials, a seven-day course was
more effective than placebo for resolution
of impetigo.8,11 Local allergic reactions, skin
sensitization, and difficulty with application
to areas such as eyelids, mouth, and back
are potential disadvantages of topical treatments. Three topical antibiotic preparations
recommended for impetigo are mupirocin
2% cream or ointment (Bactroban), retapamulin 1% ointment (Altabax), and fusidic
acid (not available in United States). Empiric
treatment considerations have changed
with the increasing prevalence of antibioticresistant bacteria. Methicillin-resistant

Table 1. Differential Diagnosis of Impetigo
Bullous
Bullous erythema multiforme
Bullous fixed drug eruption
Bullous lupus erythematosus
Bullous pemphigoid reactions
Bullous scabies
Contact dermatitis
Dermatitis herpetiformis
Insect bites
Linear immunoglobulin A bullous
dermatosis
Necrotizing fasciitis
Pemphigus vulgaris
Stevens-Johnson syndrome
Thermal burns
Transient neonatal pustular melanosis

Nonbullous
Atopic dermatitis
Bockhart impetigo*10
Childhood discoid lupus
erythematosus
Contact dermatitis
Cutaneous candidiasis
Dermatophytosis (tinea
corporis or capitis)
Herpes simplex virus
Pediculosis (lice)
Scabies
Sweet syndrome (acute febrile
neutrophilic dermatosis)
Varicella zoster virus

*—A pustular folliculitis, not true impetigo.
Information from references 1, 4, and 10.

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Impetigo

S. aureus (MRSA), macrolide-resistant streptococcus, and mupirocin-resistant streptococcus are now documented.6,14
Retapamulin is a novel pleuromutilin antibacterial and the first new topical antibacterial in nearly 20 years.14 Pleuromutilins,
derived from the fungus Clitopilus passeckerianus, have antibacterial activity against
gram-positive bacterial organisms.20 Retapamulin acts on three key aspects of bacterial protein synthesis, making it far less likely
to induce resistant strains. In 2007, the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration approved
retapamulin 1% ointment for the treatment
of impetigo due to S. aureus (methicillinsusceptible isolates only) or S. pyogenes in
adults and children at least nine months of
age. Retapamulin is not approved for intranasal staphylococcal carrier treatment or treatment of MRSA-related skin infections.6,19
Pricing of the two topical treatment options
available in the United States varies depending on preparation. Mupirocin is available
as a less expensive generic version and as a
brand. All available mupirocin products are
less expensive than the newer brand-only
retapamulin ointment (Table 2 6,8,11,14,17-19).

ORAL ANTIBIOTICS

Oral antibiotic therapy can be used for impetigo with large bullae or when topical therapy is impractical (Table 3).12,15 Treatment for
seven days is usually sufficient, but this can
be extended if the clinical response is inadequate and antibacterial susceptibility has
been confirmed. There is no clear evidencebased preference among the different classes
of oral antibiotics. Comparison studies also
show no significant difference in cure rates
between topical and oral antibiotics.8 In the
past, erythromycin and penicillin were standard treatments, but because of emerging
drug resistance, they are no longer routinely
used.12 Resistance rates vary regionally, so
health care professionals should check local
resistance patterns to select the appropriate
antibiotic.8 One study that lacked statistical
power showed oral penicillin V potassium
was no more effective than placebo.4,11 In
other studies, penicillin V potassium was
inferior to erythromycin and cloxacillin (no
longer available in the United States), whereas
topical mupirocin was slightly superior to
oral erythromycin. No macrolide was found
to be better than another, but all were found

Table 2. Topical Antibiotics for Impetigo
Medication

Instructions

Cost*

Fusidic acid 2% ointment†17
Mupirocin 2% cream
(Bactroban)‡8,18

Apply to affected skin three times daily for seven to 12 days
Apply to affected skin three times daily for seven to 10 days;
reevaluate after three to five days if no clinical response
Approved for use in persons older than three months
Apply to affected skin three times daily for seven to 14 days
Dosing in children is same as adults
Approved for use in persons older than two months
Apply to affected skin twice daily for five days
Total treatment area should not exceed 100 cm2 in adults or
2% of total body surface area in children
Approved for use in persons nine months or older

Available in Canada and Europe
15-g tube: $48 ($89)
30-g tube: $50 ($144)

Mupirocin 2% ointment‡11

Retapamulin 1% ointment
(Altabax)§19

22-g tube: $14 ($103)

15-g tube: NA ($130)
30-g tube: NA ($245)

NA = not available.
*—Estimated retail price based on information obtained at http://www.goodrx.com (accessed April 7, 2014). Generic price listed first; brand listed
in parentheses.
†—Coverage for Staphylococcus aureus (methicillin-susceptible) and streptococcus.
‡—Coverage for S. aureus (methicillin-susceptible) and streptococcus. Mupirocin-resistant streptococcus has now been documented.6,14
§—First member of the pleuromutilin class of antibiotics. Coverage for S. aureus (methicillin-susceptible) and streptococcus.19
Information from references 6, 8, 11, 14, and 17 through 19.

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Table 3. Systemic Antibiotics for Impetigo

Adult seven-day
dose

Drug

Cost (for a
typical course
of treatment)*

Children seven-day dose

Cost*

Amoxicillin/
clavulanate
(Augmentin)†

875/125 mg every
12 hours

$19 ($193)

Younger than three months: 30 mg
per kg per day
Three months or older: 25 to 45 mg
per kg per day for those weighing
less than 40 kg (88 lb); 875/125 mg
every 12 hours for those weighing
40 kg or more
Based on mg per kg per day of the
amoxicillin component in divided
doses every 12 hours

1 bottle, 400/57 mg
per 5 mL (100-mL
oral suspension):
$30 ($125)

Cephalexin (Keflex)

250 mg every six
hours or 500 mg
every 12 hours

$5 ($90)

25 to 50 mg per kg per day in divided
doses every six to 12 hours

1 bottle, 250 mg per
5 mL (100-mL oral
suspension): $14 (NA)

Clindamycin‡

300 to 600 mg
every six to eight
hours

$18 ($200)

10 to 25 mg per kg per day in divided
doses every six to eight hours

1 bottle, 75 mg per
5 mL (100-mL oral
solution): $47 (pricing
varies by region)

Dicloxacillin

250 mg every six
hours

$14 (NA)

12.5 to 25 mg per kg per day in
divided doses every six hours

See adult pricing: no
liquid formulation
available

Doxycycline§

50 to 100 mg
every 12 hours

$15 ($95)

2.2 to 4.4 mg per kg per day in
divided doses every 12 hours
Not recommend in children younger
than eight years

1 bottle, 25 mg per
5 mL (60-mL oral
suspension): $20
(pricing varies by
region)

Minocycline
(Minocin)§

100 mg every
12 hours

$36 ($185)

Loading dose of 4 mg per kg for first
dose (maximum dose of 200 mg),
then 4 mg per kg per day in divided
doses every 12 hours
Maximum of 400 mg per day
Not recommend in children younger
than eight years

See adult pricing: no
liquid formulation
available

Trimethoprim/
sulfamethoxazole§

160/800 mg every
12 hours

$4 (NA)

8 to 10 mg per kg per day based on
the trimethoprim component in
divided doses every 12 hours

1 bottle, 40/200 mg
per 5 mL (100-mL
oral suspension):
$4 (pricing varies by
region)

NOTE: Because

of emerging resistance, penicillin and erythromycin are no longer recommended treatments.12

NA = not available.
*—Estimated retail price based on information obtained at http://www.goodrx.com (accessed April 7, 2014). Generic price listed first; brand listed
in parentheses.
†—Good coverage for Staphylococcus aureus (methicillin-susceptible) and streptococcus.
‡—If methicillin-resistant S. aureus is suspected or proven.
§—If methicillin-resistant S. aureus is suspected or proven. There is no activity against streptococcus.
Information from references 12 and 15.

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American Family Physician 233

Impetigo
SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE
Clinical recommendation
Topical antibiotics are more effective than
placebo and preferable to oral antibiotics
for limited impetigo.
Oral penicillin should not be used for
impetigo because it is less effective than
other antibiotics.
Oral erythromycin and macrolides should
not be used to treat impetigo because of
emerging drug resistance.
There is insufficient evidence to recommend
topical disinfectants for the treatment of
impetigo.
There is insufficient evidence to recommend
(or dismiss) popular herbal treatments for
impetigo.

Evidence
rating

References

A

8, 11

B

8, 12

B

8, 12

B

8

C

24

A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limitedquality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual
practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence
rating system, go to http://www.aafp.org/afpsort.

but should be avoided in children younger
than eight years.12 Oral fluoroquinolones are
not preferred because of low staphylococcal
activity and their potential association with
tendinopathy and arthropathies.12
TOPICAL DISINFECTANTS

There are some studies on the benefits of
nonantibiotic treatments, such as disinfectant soaps, but they lack statistical power.11
Disinfectants appear to be less effective
than topical antibiotics and are not recommended.8 Studies comparing hexachlorophene (not available in the United States)
with bacitracin and hydrogen peroxide with
topical fusidic acid found the topical antibiotic to be more effective.8,22,23
NATURAL THERAPIES

superior to penicillin V potassium; however, because of increasing macrolide resistance, they are no longer a preferred option.
Amoxicillin/clavulanate (Augmentin) was
superior to amoxicillin alone because of its
coverage of β-lactamase–producing organisms. Although cephalosporins may be used,
there is no evidence that one generation is
better than another.8
The incidence of MRSA-related skin and
soft tissue infections was increasing, but more
recent studies show it may be declining.21 No
studies have specifically identified a problem
with MRSA-related impetigo in adults or children, but cultures may still be useful in some
settings.6,12 If MRSA infection is suspected,
initial treatment with trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, clindamycin, or a tetracycline
(doxycycline or minocycline [Minocin]) is
recommended pending culture results.6
Although trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole
is effective for S. aureus infection, including
most MRSA infections, its use for impetigo is
limited by inadequate coverage of streptococcal bacteria. Oral clindamycin penetrates skin
and skin structures and should be considered
if MRSA infection is suspected. Because of an
increasing risk of pseudomembranous colitis,
clindamycin should be reserved for patients
allergic to penicillin, or for infections that fail
to respond to other treatments. Tetracyclines
can be used for susceptible MRSA infections,
234  American Family Physician

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The evidence is insufficient to recommend
or dismiss popular herbal treatments for
impetigo.24 Natural remedies such as tea tree
oil; tea effusions; olive, garlic, and coconut
oils; and Manuka honey have been anecdotally successful. The fact that impetigo is
self-limited means that many “cures” could
appear to be helpful without being superior
to placebo. In one study, tea leaf ointment
and oral cephalexin (Keflex) were similarly
effective, with a cure rate of 81% vs. 79%.25
Tea tree oil (derived from Melaleuca alternifolia) appeared to be equivalent to mupirocin
2% for topical decolonization of MRSA.26
Future Treatments
Future treatments for impetigo might
include minocycline foam (Foamix), which
has successfully completed phase II trials,
and Ozenoxacin, a topical quinolone that has
successfully completed phase III clinical trials.27,28 Few controlled clinical trials have had
their results published and most are methodologically weak. This area seems to merit
further study through rigorous clinical trials.
Data Sources: A PubMed search was conducted for impetigo-related topics, including clinical reviews, randomized
controlled trials, and meta-analyses. Search terms included
impetigo; impetigo and treatment; retapamulin; fusidic
acid; impetigo and MRSA; natural and herbal treatments
for impetigo; minocycline foam (Foamix); Ozenoxacin; antibiotic resistance and impetigo; and topical and systemic
treatments for impetigo. Relevant publications from the

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Impetigo

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Essential Evidence, UpToDate, Epocrates, and the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention website were also reviewed. Search
dates: April to December 2012, and May 2014.

The Authors
HOLLY HARTMAN-ADAMS, MD, is an assistant professor
of emergency medicine at West Virginia University Robert
C. Byrd Health Sciences Center in Morgantown.
CHRISTINE BANVARD, MD, is an assistant professor of
emergency medicine at West Virginia University Robert C.
Byrd Health Sciences Center.
GREGORY JUCKETT, MD, MPH, is a professor of family medicine and director of the International Travel Clinic at West
Virginia University Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center.
Address correspondence to Holly Hartman-Adams, MD,
West Virginia University Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences
Center, P.O. Box 9247, Morgantown, WV 26506 (e-mail:
[email protected]). Reprints are not available
from the authors.
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Florida: a comparative study. Pediatr Nephrol. 2008;
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Altabax (retapamulin) ointment [package insert].
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gskprm?cmd=ProductDetailPage&product_id=132084
3776888&featureKey=603182. Accessed May 5, 2014.
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RA, Gontarek RR. Biochemical characterization of the
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21. Landrum ML, Neumann C, Cook C, et al. Epidemiology
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22. Ruby RJ, Nelson JD. The influence of hexachlorophene
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